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Freedom From ISIS Means Yazidi Women Must Abandon Their Children


With the last piece of ISIS territory liberated in Syria, women kidnapped by ISIS five years ago are now being freed. Most of them are from the Yazidi religious minority. As NPR's Jane Arraf reports from northeastern Syria, those who emerged with children face a heartbreaking choice. And just a warning here - some people might find this story disturbing.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: The little girl has been crying all day long. She's 5 years old, and she's cried herself sick, the women here say. We're in a room with foam mats spread out on a concrete floor in a village in the Kurdish region of Syria. It's a halfway house for people held captive for five years and now freed from ISIS with the fall of the caliphate. The women and children here are waiting to cross the border to Iraq to return to what's left of their families but not the girl's 2-year-old brother. The children have different fathers. Ibrahim's was a Moroccan ISIS fighter. The boy was born after his mother was kidnapped and forced to marry a member of the group that carried out genocide against her people. His mother is 22 now. She's been told that if she wants to go home, she has to abandon her son. It's such a sensitive topic, we're not using the mother and daughter's names.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I mean, I love him just like my daughter, but my parents won't accept him. Nothing is in my hands.

ARRAF: The group she's with had tried to cross the border that morning. They left Ibrahim behind.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) Even my daughter was crying, saying, why is my brother not coming with us? I want to go back to Ibrahim. She cried the whole day.

ARRAF: When they got to the border, they were turned back because of a dispute between the Iraqi army and Kurdish Syrian forces.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) When I came back, he saw the car and ran towards me. And he shouted and hugged me. It was very painful.

ARRAF: But they're going to try to cross again, so this might be her last night with both her children. She sits on the floor, her daughter's head in her lap, stroking her hair as the little girl cries. Her other hand reaches for Ibrahim's tiny hand, outstretched as he sleeps.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) For three years, I haven't been apart from him for a single minute, and I leave him in one minute. It's very hard.

ARRAF: The mother cries. The little girl cries. Practically everyone in the room starts to cry - the woman leaning against the wall with an arm broken by an ISIS wife, the young woman with shrapnel wounds lying on a bed, even the older Yazidi women taking care of them who've seen this dozens of times.

FAHIMA SULEIMAN: (Through interpreter) All of the mothers cry. They don't want to give them up. They cry, and they beat themselves because they are from the mother's flesh and blood. But if they go with the mother, the family doesn't accept them, and the community doesn't accept them, so they are forced to leave them here.

ARRAF: That's Fahima Suleiman, one of the Yazidi women who helps families who've just been freed. It's been five years since ISIS kidnapped thousands of Yazidi women and forced them into sexual slavery. I ask how many children have been separated from their mothers.

SHAMI RAMO: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: "There are thousands," says Shami Ramo, another of the Yazidi women running the house.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: The mother says she pleaded with her parents to let her bring her son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I have so many friends that were freed. Some brought two children, and some brought three children, and their families still don't accept them. My parents tell me no one accepted any of these children and that this applies to everyone.

ARRAF: It applies to everyone not just because the fathers belong to a group that's slaughtered and enslaved Yazidis but because only those born to Yazidi parents are considered Yazidi. Since they have Muslim fathers, these children are considered Muslim. There are hundreds of Yazidi women believed still hidden among ISIS families in the camps in Syria. The mother says some of them won't come out because they're told by those families their children would be taken away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) If I wanted to stay with my son, I would have had to stay with ISIS. I was told they take the children away from their mothers, and it's true.

ARRAF: Once the women cross over into Iraq, they're not allowed by security forces to cross the border again. The 22-year-old woman's Yazidi husband, the little girl's father, was kidnapped with her five years ago, and she thinks he was murdered. Like almost all of these women, she's completely dependent on her remaining relatives. Suleiman says any family taking in a daughter with a child from an ISIS father would be shunned by the community.

SULEIMAN: (Through interpreter) No one will look at them. No one will drink their water. No one will visit them.

ARRAF: The women say Ibrahim, like other children of Yazidi mothers and ISIS fathers, will be left here in an orphanage run by Syrian Kurdish fighters for a local family to adopt. None of the officials we ask know where that orphanage is. When we come back the next day, the young mother and her daughter and the rest of the group are gone. This time, the Iraqi army allowed them to cross the border.

IBRAHIM: (Babbling).

ARRAF: Ibrahim is still here. He plays with a set of blocks a visitor brought him, and he doesn't seem to realize, right now anyway, that anything is wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: A Syrian Yazidi man with luxurious white hair and a sweeping white mustache bends down to play with him. This part of Syria is run by secular Kurds, and it's one of the very few places in the region where Islam doesn't rule. Mahmoud Rasho (ph), another Syrian Yazidi, says if Ibrahim went to Iraq, other children would always consider him a son of ISIS, and he would face discrimination. He says they will find good families here for the children.

MAHMOUD RASHO: (Through interpreter) The family we are giving them to, they must be a good family. Their thinking must not be radical Islamic. They must be secular and open-minded.

ARRAF: He says they'll be placed with families with no children of their own who can afford to raise them.

IBRAHIM: (Babbling).

ARRAF: The new family will likely change Ibrahim's name. He doesn't know he was born in the ISIS caliphate, and he probably won't remember his mother. But his mother will remember. As she says, he's her flesh and blood. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in northeastern Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEDERICO ALBANESE'S "THE ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.